White Purity

No Title Required 3 (Robert Ryman, 2013)
No Title Required 3 (Robert Ryman, 2013)

Among other things, white­ness is a kind of solip­sism. From right to left, whites con­sis­tently and suc­cess­fully reroute every polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion to their iden­tity. The con­tent of this iden­tity, unsur­pris­ingly, is left unex­am­ined and unde­fined. It is the false foun­da­tion of the pro­to­typ­i­cally Amer­i­can model of pseudo-pol­i­tics.

The most insid­i­ous form of white pseudo-pol­i­tics is white guilt. Whether it is as dan­ger­ous or as eth­i­cally rep­re­hen­si­ble as the open racism of white supremacy is a mis­lead­ing ques­tion. Both rein­force the delu­sion of white­ness.

In a spec­u­la­tive screed called “The cen­ter has fal­len, and white nation­al­ism is fill­ing the vac­uum,” white author Ned Resnikoff reports with alarm that “white mem­bers of the self-styled rad­i­cal left are closer than they know to right-wing white pop­ulism.” Con­sid­er­ing that right-wing white pop­ulists are proudly giv­ing Nazi salutes in pub­lic and claim Trump as their hero, that cer­tainly seems like a cause for con­cern.

But Resnikoff runs into a bit of trou­ble when he tries to go into detail about this dan­ger­ous “white left.” The prob­lem, as it turns out, is that not all of them are white. Jacobin Mag­a­zine, held up as the exem­plar of the white left, has as its found­ing edi­tor Bhaskar Sunkara – I’ve seen him in per­son, and he’s darker than me. Resnikoff also points to an approv­ing cita­tion by white nation­al­ist Chris Roberts of a Jacobin arti­cle writ­ten by Shuja Haider. I am fairly cer­tain that this other Mr. Haider is not white, since I am in fact related to him.

These debates, flar­ing up con­stantly since Trump’s elec­tion, provide whites with a per­fect oppor­tu­nity to make the world revolve around them. On Twit­ter lib­eral whites accuse crit­ics of iden­tity pol­i­tics of ignor­ing white priv­i­lege, while social­ist whites respond by point­ing out how many white peo­ple there are in Amer­ica.

In the mean­time, nobody knows what to do with the non-whites, like me, who attempt to inter­vene in the debate. So far the strat­egy of the lib­eral whites has amounted to a glo­ri­fied form of stick­ing their fin­gers in their ears and shout­ing “I can’t hear you!” Whites on Twit­ter con­tinue to res­olutely accuse us of being white, while white acquain­tances point out that we are not. And so it turns back around, back to white peo­ple and their fan­tasies. We have tried, for some time, to ignore this and con­tinue to dis­cuss the sub­stan­tive issues. But white peo­ple make our lives even more dif­fi­cult when they claim to speak in our name. I can only con­clude that the strange phe­nom­e­non called white­ness pro­duces a very deep and tena­cious psy­chopathol­ogy, and that it is time for us to attack it openly.

***

What Ned Resnikoff demon­strates is that white guilt has a dark side, which I pro­pose label­ing “white purity.” It is a kind of ide­ol­ogy of racial hygiene which embraces mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and diver­sity, but attempts to elim­i­nate unde­sir­able ele­ments from the white iden­tity itself.

From the per­spec­tive of white purity, there are good whites. They have col­lege degrees, lis­ten to NPR, and have many POC friends. But unfor­tu­nately there also are bad whites. They’re bad because they prob­a­bly voted for Don­ald Trump. But it gets worse. They lis­ten to coun­try music and eat fac­tory farmed meat. They are offen­sively over­weight, and go to church instead of yoga on Sun­days. Most dis­gust­ing of all, they work in dirty man­ual labor jobs and have a petty fix­a­tion on mak­ing more money, unaware that at Har­vard an Eng­lish major of color is being forced to endure the trauma of read­ing Huck­le­berry Finn.

The whole thing gets more com­pli­cated because there are a few other bad whites who shouldn’t be bad whites, like Mark Lilla or Todd Gitlin. Despite their good edu­ca­tions and their incomes, they fail to embrace white purity. Instead, they advo­cate return­ing to the white pol­i­tics of the 1930s and 1940s, when a benev­o­lent white pres­i­dent secured a wel­fare state for his fel­low whites.

As it turns out, these lapsed whites are actu­ally a god­send for the whole project of white purity, because they serve to dis­credit any pos­si­ble ide­o­log­i­cal threat. All non-white crit­ics of white purity can be dis­missed by loudly claim­ing that they are lit­tle more than lapsed whites in dis­guise. Whether you are black, Arab, Puerto Rican, or Korean, you will need to be re-iden­ti­fied if you fail to play your role.

Indeed, to the con­ster­na­tion of good whites, not every non-white is on board with white purity. Many are, to be sure, because the secret real­ity which white purity hopes to obscure is that non-whites are just as capa­ble of a diver­sity of opin­ions and per­spec­tives as whites are. For white purity to suc­ceed, non-whites have to be roman­ti­cized as noble vic­tims. When they fail to fit into this cat­e­gory, white purity seems to lack a proper foun­da­tion.

Fredrik deBoer asks, “Does it mat­ter to Resnikoff that the most acid cri­tiques of iden­tity pol­i­tics I know of have come from writ­ers of color?” It is a ques­tion that keeps many whites awake at night. But for the rest of us the rea­sons are obvi­ous. Because we have expe­ri­enced racism from well-behaved and well-edu­cated lib­er­als as often as from the red­necks they despise; because we have never ben­e­fit­ted from the con­de­scend­ing and patron­iz­ing atti­tudes of white mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists; because we rec­og­nize in the afflu­ent lib­eral hatred of the white poor the same depraved social Dar­win­ism that in less pub­lic moments is directed against us.

***

“Metaphor is never inno­cent,” Jacques Der­rida remarked. “It ori­ents research and fixes results.” The pri­mor­dial metaphor for white­ness is the knap­sack, intro­duced by white author Peggy McIn­tosh in her influ­en­tial arti­cle “White Priv­i­lege: Unpack­ing the Invis­i­ble Knap­sack.”

Of course, McIn­tosh was not the first to try to describe the con­se­quences of white­ness. W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote of the legal and social advan­tages granted to whites in Black Recon­struc­tion:

It must be remem­bered that the white group of labor­ers, while they received a low wage, were com­pen­sated in part by a sort of pub­lic and psy­cho­log­i­cal wage. They were given pub­lic def­er­ence and titles of cour­tesy because they were white. They were admit­ted freely with all classes of white peo­ple to pub­lic func­tions, pub­lic parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, depen­dent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encour­age law­less­ness. Their vote selected pub­lic offi­cials, and while this had small effect upon the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, it had great effect upon their per­sonal treat­ment and the def­er­ence shown them. White school­houses were the best in the com­mu­nity, and con­spic­u­ously placed, and they cost any­where from twice to ten times as much per cap­ita as the col­ored schools. The news­pa­pers spe­cial­ized on news that flat­tered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.

How­ever, McIntosh’s arti­cle oper­ated at a very dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter from Du Bois’s his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of the class com­po­si­tion of the post­bel­lum United States. It is likely that McIn­tosh wrote with the best of inten­tions, aim­ing to reduce bar­baric behav­iors among whites. Unfor­tu­nately, the effect of her arti­cle has been to provide whites with new and seem­ingly pro­gres­sive ways of cen­ter­ing pol­i­tics on the white iden­tity.

This is because McIn­tosh refers through­out her arti­cle, inter­change­ably, to “my race,” “my racial group,” and “my skin color.” The first “white priv­i­lege” she names is: “I can if I wish arrange to be in the com­pany of peo­ple of my race most of the time.” Another is that she can “go into a music shop and count on find­ing the music of my race rep­re­sented.”

We will set aside what appears to be a lack of famil­iar­ity with the his­tory of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music. What is sig­nif­i­cant is the equa­tion of skin color, the cat­e­gory of “race,” and dis­crete group­ings of human beings.

With this equa­tion, white guilt repro­duces the found­ing fic­tion of race: that there is a bio­log­i­cal foun­da­tion, expressed in phys­i­cal phe­no­types, for sep­a­rate groups of human beings which have sep­a­rate cul­tures and forms of life.

This idea of race is a delu­sion, one which nev­er­the­less has a “real” mate­rial effect. The “white race” is a more speci­fic for­ma­tion – a polit­i­cal struc­ture of recent inven­tion.

But the metaphor of the knap­sack serves to obscure the real­ity of white­ness. McIn­tosh writes: “White priv­i­lege is like an invis­i­ble weight­less knap­sack of spe­cial pro­vi­sions, maps, pass­ports, code­books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

The knap­sack is car­ried by an indi­vid­ual nav­i­gat­ing the open social field. It con­tains tools which enable the indi­vid­ual to nav­i­gate this field with greater effec­tive­ness than those whose knap­sacks are com­par­a­tively empty. The resources con­tained in the knap­sack con­sti­tute white­ness as priv­i­lege, because the knap­sack is car­ried by an indi­vid­ual who belongs to the white iden­tity.

If the knap­sack of priv­i­leges is car­ried by an indi­vid­ual already iden­ti­fi­able as white, then white­ness must nec­es­sar­ily be under­stood as a bio­log­i­cal trait. The false­ness of this notion is evi­dent: the peo­ple who are cur­rently described as white have a wide and com­plex range of genetic lin­eages, many of which were pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered to be sep­a­rate “races” of their own (the well-doc­u­mented though fre­quently for­got­ten racial­iza­tion of Slavs, Ital­ians, the Irish, etc).

We might con­clude that there has only been a minor error of descrip­tion: in real­ity, white­ness itself is con­sti­tuted by the con­tents of the knap­sack. The con­sti­tu­tion of white­ness as iden­tity and its con­sti­tu­tion as priv­i­lege are simul­ta­ne­ous: the knapsack’s pro­vi­sions con­fer not only advan­tages but also iden­tity upon its bearer.

But how do we know, then, that the con­tent of the iden­tity con­ferred has some­thing to do with “white­ness”? Surely, in addi­tion to the speci­fic items con­fer­ring a priv­i­lege, one would find in any knap­sack of iden­tity an infin­ity of arbi­trary details: hair length, gait, dietary pref­er­ence, com­puter skills, etc. That is, in order to describe an individual’s iden­tity, the knap­sack would have to con­tain every­thing con­sti­tut­ing the this-ness of that par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual. It would offer us no insight as to the orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple which con­sti­tutes these traits as some­thing which can be called “white.” There would be no way to dis­tin­guish “white” char­ac­ter­is­tics from human ones, Penn­syl­va­nian ones, or heavy metal ones.

This is the fail­ure of lib­eral thought. A polit­i­cal for­ma­tion such as white­ness can­not be explained by start­ing with an individual’s iden­tity – the reduc­tion of pol­i­tics to the psy­chol­ogy of the self. The start­ing point will have to be the social struc­ture and its con­sti­tu­tive rela­tions, within which indi­vid­u­als are com­posed. And it is too often for­got­ten that decades before McIntosh’s knap­sack, the term “white priv­i­lege” orig­i­nated with such a the­ory.

***

The the­ory of “white-skin priv­i­lege” was advanced by mem­bers of an early anti-revi­sion­ist split-off from the Com­mu­nist Party USA (the Pro­vi­sional Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee), and would come to have an enor­mous influ­ence on the New Left and the New Com­mu­nist Move­ment. A series of essays by Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev, col­lected as the pam­phlet White Blindspot, offered the ini­tial for­mu­la­tion. Ignatiev and Allen’s argu­ment was that the legacy of slav­ery was the impo­si­tion of white supremacy by the rul­ing class, as an instru­ment of class divi­sion. But this was a polit­i­cal the­ory, not a cul­tural or moral one, and it held that “white chau­vin­ism” was actu­ally detri­men­tal to the white work­ing class, pre­vent­ing unity with black work­ers. So fight­ing against white supremacy was in fact a cen­tral part of a polit­i­cal pro­gram that favored the self-orga­ni­za­tion of all work­ers. Ignatiev’s ini­tial entry is worth quot­ing at length:

The end­ing of white supremacy is not solely a demand of the Negro peo­ple, sep­a­rate from the class demands of the entire work­ing class. It can­not be left to the Negro peo­ple to fight it alone, while the white work­ers “sym­pa­thize with their fight,” “sup­port it,” “reject racist slan­ders” etc. but actu­ally fight for their “own” demands.

The ide­ol­ogy of white chau­vin­ism is bour­geois poi­son aimed pri­mar­ily at the white work­ers, uti­lized as a weapon by the rul­ing class to sub­ju­gate black and white work­ers. It has its mate­rial base in the prac­tice of white supremacy, which is a crime not merely against non-whites but against the entire pro­le­tariat. There­fore, its elim­i­na­tion cer­tainly qual­i­fies as one of the class demands of the entire work­ing class. In fact, con­sid­er­ing the role that this vile prac­tice has his­tor­i­cally played in hold­ing back the strug­gle of the Amer­i­can work­ing class, the fight against white supremacy becomes the cen­tral imme­di­ate task of the entire work­ing class. 

As this lan­guage was taken up by the New Left, how­ever, it went through con­sid­er­able ide­o­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions. The man­i­festo “You Don’t Need a Weath­er­man to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” cir­cu­lated at the tur­bu­lent Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­tic Soci­ety con­fer­ence of 1969, pro­posed a pol­i­tics cen­tered on white guilt rather than pro­le­tar­ian unity. The Weather Under­ground used the lan­guage of “priv­i­lege” to reject the white work­ing class as a force for rev­o­lu­tion­ary change, instead asso­ci­at­ing polit­i­cal strug­gle with van­guard groups like them­selves, who attacked their own priv­i­lege by adopt­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary lifestyle. What this amounted to was the self-fla­gel­la­tion (with explo­sives) of white rad­i­cals, who sub­sti­tuted them­selves for the masses and nar­cis­sis­ti­cally cen­tered atten­tion on them­selves instead of the black and Third World move­ments they claimed to be sup­port­ing – reduc­ing those move­ments to a roman­tic fan­tasy of vio­lent insur­rec­tion. In other words, the project of black auton­omy and self-lib­er­a­tion – which implied the over­all self-lib­er­a­tion of the poor and the work­ing class – was effec­tively dis­abled by the Weather Underground’s skin analy­sis.

Ignatiev ruth­lessly attacked the Weath­er­man prob­lem­atic in a paper called “With­out a Sci­ence of Nav­i­ga­tion We Can­not Sail in Stormy Seas,” which is today a jar­ring dis­cov­ery:

White supremacy is the real secret of the rule of the bour­geoisie and the hid­den cause behind the fail­ure of the labor move­ment in this coun­try. White-skin priv­i­leges serve only the bour­geoisie, and pre­cisely for that rea­son they will not let us escape them, but instead pur­sue us with them through every hour of our life, no mat­ter where we go. They are poi­son bait. To sug­gest that the accep­tance of white-skin priv­i­lege is in the inter­ests of white work­ers is equiv­a­lent to sug­gest­ing that swal­low­ing the worm with the hook in it is in the inter­ests of the fish. To argue that repu­di­at­ing these priv­i­leges is a “sac­ri­fice” is to argue that the fish is mak­ing a sac­ri­fice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furi­ously in every direc­tion and throws the barbed offer­ing.

Today’s priv­i­lege pol­i­tics can­not pos­si­bly per­mit a posi­tion of this kind. We are instead left with end­less vari­a­tions on the Weath­er­man posi­tion, though with­out the appeals to armed strug­gle, bank rob­beries, and Lenin’s the­ory of impe­ri­al­ism.

***

White lib­er­als are sug­gest­ing that a new wave of “pro-white” social­ists have arisen to defend the “white work­ing class.” This is non­sense. Black rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies through­out Amer­i­can his­tory have argued that the project of eman­ci­pa­tion requires over­com­ing the divi­sive logic of iden­tity. Although he char­ac­ter­ized the mate­rial advan­tages of white­ness as a “psy­cho­log­i­cal wage,” W.E.B. Du Bois did not reduce white­ness to an effect of indi­vid­ual psy­chol­ogy. In fact, imme­di­ately pre­ced­ing the pas­sage on the psy­cho­log­i­cal wage, Du Bois wrote:

The the­ory of race was sup­ple­mented by a care­fully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black work­ers that there prob­a­bly are not today in the world two groups of work­ers with prac­ti­cally iden­ti­cal inter­ests who hate and fear each other so deeply and per­sis­tently and who are kept so far apart that nei­ther sees any­thing of com­mon inter­est.

If today lib­eral whites refuse to rec­og­nize this com­mon inter­est, and eschew the social­ist pro­gram that Du Bois vig­or­ously endorsed, we will remain locked within the orig­i­nal sin of white­ness: the alliance of poor whites, aban­doned by North­ern elites, with the regres­sive and reac­tionary power of white cap­i­tal.

“Cap­i­tal­ism can­not reform itself,” Du Bois wrote. “It is doomed to self-destruc­tion. No uni­ver­sal self­ish­ness can bring social good to all.” Unlike today’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist lib­er­als, DuBois did not merely seek a more diverse rul­ing class. He rec­og­nized that inequal­ity would per­sist as long as cap­i­tal­ism per­se­vered. There has only ever been one alter­na­tive to white­ness and its barbed offer­ings: the mul­tira­cial alliance of the work­ing class against white supremacy and pri­vate prop­erty.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.

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